TOTL Headphones
Mike Piskor 2014

The TOTL Guide – 12 Flagship Headphones Compared

Stax SR-007 MKI – The Pinnacle of Embellishment

My first experience with the 007 was actually back in 2005 at a HiFi meet in Japan. Someone toted in one of the original Mark1 Omega 2’s, my world hasn’t been quite right since. The 007 used in this report is a Mark 2.5, a bit more forward and bass-heavy over the older versions. I am very happy that I’ve opted to buy this version for myself instead of the original version.

Bass

The bass experience on this extremely comfortable headphone is almost void of texture, yet retains excellent quantity and solidity. I feel it to be overly flat sounding and incredibly forgettable with regard to generalized style.

While on the drier and more neutral side with the tone, the 007 offers some of the yummiest and delicious low-end experiences available in the HiFi world. Exceptionally firm and solid bass, very precise and not too dissimilar to the HD800 in texture ( or lack thereof ) but simply with more quantity.

The 007 is notorious for offering one of the most gentle sound signatures available and the bass experience follows suit accordingly: the low end offered is one of a sweet, seductive and soft caressing bass experiences available. While not totally absent some kick, the 007 is certainly the softness king when it comes to this sort of kick and slam effect.

Mids

The midrange and vocal experience of the 007 is nothing short of breathtaking and in my opinion far beyond most other headphones in realistic physical weight and body. That high definition solidity appeal that real voices or instruments carry is vastly superior on the 007 and 009 to almost every other headphone in existence.

While not realistic in placement or size, something the HD800 reigns supreme with, there is no doubt that the 007 is the more physically realistic in terms of the natural weight real sounds of the world tend to carry.

I consider the 007 one of the most neutral sounding headphones in the midrange available, as when it was paired with Cavalli Audio’s Liquid Lightning 2 Hybrid amplifier, the tone of the entire spectrum vastly changed over the tone the headphone offered through Woo Audio’s GES. Where the GES sounded noticeably warmer and colored, the Lightning from Cavalli was sadistically uncolored and hypernatural.

There wasn’t a shred of bleed or blurring to any part of the midrange, it is immaculate and capable of altering in potential coloration with different electrostatic amplifiers. In terms of physical placement, the 007 offers a more relaxed sound signature. It is by no means a forward sounding headphone.

Treble

The treble experience on this headphone is quite special, at all times it offers an appeal that is similar to the HD800 or Hifiman HE-6 properly paired with the right rigs.

Bright, but not overly so and with hardly any sibilance or snap. These softer and hyper defined tonal tenancies only accentuate one another and end up equating to the most vivid and silky sound signature around. In some ways, I consider the treble on the 007 to be superior to the 009: A headphone which I find to be overly harsh and more akin to the HD800 in styling.

This is a very dark sounding headphone with jet black background effect, thus only making the entire and already wildly vivid sound quality embossed that much more. This headphone’s biggest flaw, outside of the price, is the lack of sound staging quality.

The K812 and Alpha Dog actually sound larger and more spacious, more aired out and I would equate the overall size and shape of the 007 signature to exude more emphasis on stage width and depth, something that offers a flat presentation without any of the three major components of the audio spectrum appearing more prominent than the others. Bass, midrange, and treble do not compete with each other for space.

This headphone isn’t at all that much more clear than the HD800, but it does sound significantly better on the treble and with regard to that solidity factor, that sense of higher definition and solid body presence is second only to its big brother: the 009. This is not an accurate headphone with regard to quantity but can be made accurate with proper rig pairing and with regard to natural tone potential.

Stax-007 MK1

The Most Interesting Comparisons

007 vs HD800

Of course, the HD800 sounds significantly more spacious and vast. However, the HD800 sounds paper-thin by comparison and as if something is wrong with the shape of the stage itself by comparison to the 007’s ever beauteous shapely formation to its own staging quality.

The HD800 is much leaner on the bass, the 007 has noticeably more quantity with a much softer impact. Smoothness is very much the 007’s primary quality, harshness is much more commonplace inside the HD800. The Stax is also much darker sounding, especially so in the background coloration or tone, the HD800 is a fair deal brighter.

007 vs Alpha Dog

I find the Alpha Dog noticeably larger and significantly more separated with stereo imaging. Where the 007 is more relaxed in the physical locale of the presentation, the Alpha is more forward, lively, and engaging.

Treble on the Stax is vastly superior in quantity and quality, texture, and overall luminescent compared to the more muted treble by comparison in the Alpha Dog. Technically speaking, it is astounding that the level of clarity between these two headphones is less than a few notches, however, the Stax costs upwards of $2000 more than the Alpha Dog if you purchase new.

Of course, stage depth and realistic dynamics are much better on the 007. I find the bass texture more pristine and pure, much more interesting on the Alpha Dog than the more flat and solid bass type on the Stax. The 007 loses control with moderate incremental boosts on the low end, the Alpha stays in control to a more distant degree of dB leveling.

Tone on the 007 is also more monitor like but has the potential to become almost non-existent, totally absent and colorless with the right amplifier, however, the Alpha Dog seems to retain excellent coloration on the low end and midrange on every amplifier used in this report to test each headphone.

Rig Recommendations

The Woo Audio GES and Cavalli Liquid Lightning 2 Hybrid were the only two amplifiers I was able to solicit for this report, both sound vividly different and offer completely different sound signatures.

If you prefer a warmer and colored sound, the stock GES would be my pick for you. However, if you want an absolute, pristine dead neutral coloration and tone with hyper dynamics and gooey softness, the Cavalli of course is the better way to go. There really aren’t many electrostatic amplifiers out there so your choices will be extremely limited.

Due to the more relaxed presentation of the Stax 007, as well as the lack of sound staging vastness I would say almost any electrostatic amplifier that is reputable will suffice. The GES from Woo Audio is a great stepping stone into the much more expensive amplifiers for the Stax 007, 009, and Sennheiser HE90, so you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

Worry more about your Dac selection than the amp, you’d want to stick to something as spacious and airy as possible to help retain the best sound staging that your amp is capable of. Absolutely avoid recessed sound signatures or anything with harsh treble or bass, stick to Dac’s known for a more lush appeal.

TOTL Headphones

Our Verdict

This collaboration of a dozen Summit headphones has devastated my entire outlook on the HiFi experience. Prior to this, I’d been perfectly happy to own a mid-tier headphone and utilize it as my primary. Now and after experiencing all of these products at the same time, my entire reference point for what makes me happy has been absolutely decimated. Most great headphones I’d thought were perfectly clear enough to satiate me now sound like muffled balls of haze, megaphone-like in presentation, and clarity.

My ears now pick up on subtle nuances that I’d really never paid much attention to. I don’t like where HiFi audio is heading, the simple fact that a $10 driver can be modified to sound comparable to $1000+ headphones is abysmally painful to my wallet and Paypal account. There is no excuse for this any longer, we have to stand up for ourselves as pricing for these products continues to skyrocket.

There was no true winner in this report, my views and opinions are wildly subjective. I am in this for the potential emotional ties the music brings to me, my headphones are simply the instrument I use to obtain that level of bliss…so I care little for how flat headphone measurements are, which one has the best frequency response or which one is the most accurate.

To me, accuracy does not equate to more enjoyment, it actually sums up to enjoying my music less most of the time. I’d like to listen to older recordings without feeling pain or harshness as it was originally recorded, I want to fully enjoy it. I want that masked, but I also want all the details kept alive. Sets like the Stax 007 and Alpha Dog do just that.

Overall Winner

Having said that, if I were forced to offer an overall winner to you, there is no question that the Alpha Dog absolutely, brutally emaciated the 11 other models in this report. Disregarding price completely, it compares and even bests some of the $1000+ models out there, yet the driver’s original manufacturing price was probably less than $10. No other headphone offers as much as the Alpha and it costs hundreds less than it should.

Originally, I had written this report with total disregard for pricing and reviewed each model as if they were all the same price. All mentions of pricing on each headphone section were edited in during the final draft copy, I’d originally tried not to let pricing affect my judgment. Even then, the Alpha Dog still bested most of the other headphones in many ways…the fact that it costs $599 is just a massive bonus. This fact should embarrass the hell out of every other company out there.

The truth is that despite strengths, flaws, and the overpriced nonsense occurring in these headphones, all of them are life-altering, superb beyond reason, and able to solicit that emotional response that I yearn for. Each one has its own special qualities that sound great in specific areas. You might a certain headphone to outperform another, I might find that headphone to flat out stink.

Burn-In & AKG K812
Audeze LCD3 & LCD-XC
Beyerdynamic T1 & Fostex TH600/900
Hifiman HE-560 & HE-6
Jhaudio JH16 Pro & MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
Oppo PM1 & Sennheiser HD800
Stax 007 & Our Verdict

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